BAHA’s House Tour Examines Victorian Past

By STEVE FINACOM Special to the Planet
Friday April 30, 2004

Berkeley began as a blend of countryside, farmland, waterfront settlement, and academic village. By the end of the 19th century the town was still small, but featured neighborhoods of both stately and modest Victorian residences. Such homes were the glory of Berkeley a century ago. 

Twelve well-preserved and carefully cared-for homes from that Victorian era, all built between 1889 and 1900, have been generously volunteered by their proud owners and will be featured on Sunday, May 9, in the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s 29th Spring House Tour.  

“Berkeley 1890—At Home” is a Mother’s Day event where tour-goers can explore handsome and historic residences and indulge in light refreshments at a garden reception. The houses will be open from 1-5 p.m.  

This year the tour is concentrated in the LeConte district along Fulton Street (think east of Berkeley Bowl). In this neighborhood south of Dwight Way, Craftsman, Colonial Revival, and stucco bungalow homes line the quiet streets. There’s a notable cluster of Victorians—one of Berkeley’s best, most intact, Victorian districts—along the 2100 block of Ward Street and stretching north and south on Fulton. It’s these latter homes that are the focus of the tour. 

Berkeley, like other central Bay Area communities—San Francisco, Alameda, Oakland—got started in the 19th century with neighborhoods of wooden homes near rail (and, later, streetcar) lines. Modest early Victorian cottages in the Italianate style were soon surpassed by elaborate two and three story Eastlake and Queen Anne residences, as well as a fair number of “Carpenter Gothic” mansions built by or for the town’s elite and encrusted with ornate decorative millwork.  

Lumberyards, planing mills and construction companies in Berkeley served the local market. Developers energetically promoted Berkeley as a place to live. New Victorian homes fronted by “artificial stone” sidewalks lined streets that developers were rapidly laying out in patchwork fashion across town. Residents prided themselves on their front yard flower gardens, bordered by low, cast-iron fences or white-painted wooden pickets. 

Victorian style in Berkeley rose to a peak in the 1890s, then began to go out of fashion. Local designers, builders, and buyers began to emphasize the “simple home,” often built out of unpainted redwood and with understated ornamentation, in contrast to the elaborate earlier Victorians. Beaux Arts neo-classicism also entered the scene. Residential buyers now flocked to new streetcar suburbs of stucco bungalows, foursquare “Classic Box” residences, or brown-shingle homes. 

Many Victorians were altered to fit the new styles, and many others were torn down as large “villa lot” properties in the oldest neighborhoods were subdivided for more intense development. “Period revival” and more modern styles of architecture followed. Up through the mid-20th century, university expansion removed much of the old Victorian neighborhood in the south campus area and private development and municipal re-development accounted for many more demolitions of venerable Victorians throughout the city. Berkeley’s wooden Victorian downtown disappeared, replaced with larger brick and concrete commercial buildings.  

Today, more than a century after the Victorian heyday, only a few concentrated enclaves of homes from that era remain in Berkeley. Discover one of the best preserved on the BAHA Spring House Tour. 


Tips for the Tour 

The LeConte neighborhood is a trapezoid, bordered by Dwight, Telegraph, Ashby, and Shattuck. It’s guarded on north and south by traffic barriers so you can’t enter by car from Dwight or Ashby, except on foot. Come in from Telegraph or Shattuck, on or between Parker and Russell.  

Arrive on time to make full use of the four-hour tour. If you don’t have a ticket, they go on sale at Ward and Shattuck one hour before the tour, at noon. The tour is self-guided. You receive a tour booklet describing the history of each house and you can go at your own pace. Some like to go slowly, lingering when they find a favorite house; others briskly visit all the homes, then head for the reception area or return to take a longer second look at the most interesting buildings. 

Park in one place. There’s no need to move your car from house to house, because they’re close together. There’s often Sunday street parking available around LeConte School, bordered by Oregon, Ellsworth, and Fulton, just a few blocks south of the tour site. Don’t park in the Berkeley Bowl or Walgreen’s parking lot and head off to the tour, and don’t drive through traffic barriers or make right-hand turns against red lights along Telegraph. All these actions can result in an expensive ticket in this neighborhood. 

On the day of the tour, the 2100 block of Ward (east of Shattuck) will be closed to through traffic. You’ll be able to experience the street as in Victorian days, without noisy automobiles. 

The LeConte neighborhood has a number of intriguing sights beyond its Victorian homes. One of Berkeley’s best concentrations of flatlands brown-shingle homes lies along Fulton, north of Ward. Keep an eye out for unusual yard art such as a gigantic topiary squirrel (close to Fulton and Carleton) and a three-quarters buried car with broken “radiator” perpetually bubbling away in a front yard around Fulton and Derby.  

(LeConte, by the way, is also the neighborhood where science fiction and mystery writer Anthony Boucher once lived, SLA leaders plotted Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, and the Society for Creative Anachronism held its first mock-medieval event, although none of those sites are on the tour.) 

If you want to arrive a bit early in the neighborhood and have breakfast or brunch before you start, Sconehenge at Stuart and Shattuck offers full traditional breakfasts and lunches and some interesting specials, as well as take-out baked goods. Berkeley Bowl at Oregon and Shattuck opens at 10:00 AM on Sundays and has an on-site café with light fare. Both are within a few minutes stroll of the tour homes. And some of Berkeley’s best brunch places from the Elmwood to La Note on Shattuck are just a few minutes away by car.  


Ticket Information 

Tickets for the self-guided House Tour and Reception are $25 general admission, $20 for BAHA members and their guests. (You can join BAHA the day of the tour if you like). Tickets will also be sold on the day of the tour, starting promptly at noon, at a booth at the intersection of Ward and Fulton streets. 

For further information call the Berkeley Architectural Heritage office at 841-2242 or 841-1055. A printable order form is available online at www.berkeleyheritage.com/house_tour_tickets.html. 

If you volunteer to help during the tour, you can attend for free. At press time, volunteers were still needed. Call Sarah at 845-1632. Volunteering entails spending half of the tour (either beginning or end) at one of the houses, helping to guide the flow of visitors. Each site has an experienced “House Captain” who will let you know what to do. On a tour like this, where all of the houses are concentrated within a few blocks, it’s easy to both volunteer and see the sights. 

In addition to the tour, a related lecture by Paul Roberts entitled “A.W. Pattiani, Victorian Designer-Builder” on Wednesday, May 5. Both lectures will be held at the Church by the Side of the Road, 2108 Russell St. at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, at $7 each, will be available at the lecture site.